Japanese farmhands may soon be replaced by automated drones, according to a Thursday report from Reuters. Farmers and developers in northeast Japan have been testing the drone technology for months, said the report, as a means to supplement the work done by aging farmers.

The drone is able to hover above rice paddy fields and perform strenuous tasks in a fraction of the time it takes for the average farmer, added the report. Developers of the drone told Reuters that this could be the solution for an upcoming labor shortage in rural Japanese communities, where young people are leaving for cities instead of staying to work in the fields.

SEE: Future of farming: AI, IoT, drones, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The drone, named the Nile-T18, was developed by startup Nileworks inc and has been tested in collaboration with JA Miyagi Tome and trading house Sumitomo Corp, said the report. Nileworks’ creation can disperse pesticides and fertilizer to a rice field in 15 minutes–a job that typically takes over an hour by hand and forces elderly farmers to drag around heavy tanks, according to Reuters.

Their mission is to decrease the physical burden of rice farming and improve its productivity, especially in these rural areas that have faced decades of falling birth and labor rates, said the report. And with current Tome farmers reaching 67-68 years of age, they probably only have four to five more years of farming left, Isamu Sakakibara, a 69-year-old rice farmer and head of JA Miyagi Tome, told Reuters.

Another option is a bigger, radio-controlled mini-helicopter with spray equipment, which costs around 15 million yen ($135,758), said Reuters. However, the drone is much smaller, only costs 4 million yen, and can be controlled with an iPad. Nileworks is trying to get permission from authorities to allow farmers to operate the drone without a license, added the report.

SEE: The Future of Food (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

“People still have a strong stereotypical image of farming as a dirty and hard-labor job, but it’s no longer all true thanks to gradual mechanization,” said Shota Chiba, a 29-year-old Tome farmer. “New technology like diagnostic drones could help change this old image and attract more young people to farming, which I truly enjoy.”

Check out this TechRepublic article to learn more about how drones are revolutionizing agriculture.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:

  • With next generation Japanese rice farmers migrating to big cities, aging farmers are turning to drones to pick up the slack.
  • The Nile-T18 drone can disperse pesticides and fertilizer to rice fields in a fraction of the time elderly farmers can, and it is the cheapest alternative to work done by hand.

Image: iStockphoto/iStock-537635746